Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

“I have been groomed by media to expect walking into a smoke bomb of chemicals with images of smoke stacks in the back ground bellowing caustic chemicals so as to erode at the very people who work and put it in the air” -Friend #1 “There’s a ghost town in the most populous country in the world?  What is there to do in Shanghai except climb ever-growing skyscrapers?  Use and throw cheap stuff?” -Friend #2 “You’re in China?  Are you alive?  Chinese people are very hard to deal with.” -Friend #3 (Still not sure what specifically was meant by this…) Of all the places I’ve traveled, China has been the one that has truly blasted my stereotypes to smithereens.  In addition to the recent conversations I quoted above, I’ve had dozens of people made comments about visiting the communist kingdom that is stealing American jobs and flooding the market with cheap products that poison our babies.  I’ll openly admit that I held many incredibly misconceptions of China myself, partially from one day of teaching Chinese students in Durham but many from the American media.  I braced myself for mobs of people spitting and farting in public and eating cats like heathens.  I feared teaching would involve a lot of awkward silence as they tentatively typed on their translators, a refusal to get their hands dirty building things and robotic responses when I forced them to talk (granted I developed many of these fears after a day teaching Chinese high school students in Durham in February).  I expected dirty streets, stinky air and a month where smog strangled any sense of sunlight. I experienced some of these things.  Tourist attractions on the weekends were pretty packed, due to summer break and a growing middle class that wants to see their country.    At the Humble Administrator Garden in Suzhou, our experience of the UNESCO site was definitely hampered when we were stuck on skinny bridges, sandwiched and stuck between sweaty families shuffling slowly with minimal forward motion. “Sightseeing is one of the more doubtful aspects of travel and in China it is one of the least rewarding things a traveler can do- primarily a distraction and seldom even an amusement.  It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimmage and none of the spiritual benefits”. -Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster: Travels Through China Zhongshan Mountain in Nanjing epitomized what I expected tourism in China to be like: mediocre attractions artificially reconstructed for click-happy tourists, with the featured Ming Temple empty except for shops that sold postcards, waving cat statues and lucky knots.  But that happens anywhere and I’ve discovered that there’s more to China than just the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and simplistic way this large and complex country is portrayed in the media. During orientation week of nerd camp, the academic coordinator showed us a “Danger of a Single Story” TED talk from a Nigerian author that warned us about making generalizations from isolated experiences. “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Here’s what I learned about traveling China, based on a teaching month in Kunshan, traveling on the weekends to Suzhou, Zhouzhuang and Nanjing with a few days in Huangshan, Yanqing and Beijing at the end of the program.  Most of the time I traveled with someone who spoke at least basic Chinese but I spent a couple  days in Shanghai and a day in Beijing exploring independently.  There’s truth to many of these rumors but there are extremely notable exceptions so I’ll share tips that I picked up that can help you have a better experience. “You know more about a road having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world” -William Hazlirt Rumor 1: It’s hard to travel around China if you don’t speak Chinese  As with most of these rumors, it depends where you are.  In general, I was impressed with the amount of English on signs and on announcements on trains and even local buses around Kunshan.   It’s really easy to navigate the high speed train and city metro systems.  Shanghai is extremely well-labelled with English street signs which even include the cardinal directions.  All the tourist attractions in Nanjing, Zhouzhang and Suzhou had English signage and were easy to navigate, although maps were typically in Chinese. I think the hardest part for modern travelers could be the internet situation.  Free wifi is “readily available” in many train stations, cafes and some main squares but often requires a Chinese SIM card to get the password to unlock it.  So for...